Each passing week is a test for the Cleveland Browns. Is their play on the field improving? Are they disciplined? Is the young team and its rookie coach maturing? Considering all that has occurred during the 2019 season, this organization must prove it is ready to grow up. Are they a playoff contender?
The Dolphins are a pushover, but Sunday was a start. Despite a third quarter lull, both sides of the ball reacted well to the hectic week. Take nothing for granted with this group, beating up on a tanking Miami squad wasn’t a given. Seven penalties committed was good, not great, and aside from the interception Baker Mayfield threw behind Odell Beckham Jr on a slant, the turnover problem has subsided. Mayfield seems calmer in the pocket than earlier in the season, though he still has a tendency to bail early. It’s clear at this point he’s more comfortable on the move, giving himself space and wider throwing lanes to get rid of the ball. Not ideal, but whatever it takes for the QB to get comfortable. Freddie Kitchens has also called more play action (where did he get that idea from?), allowing Mayfield to play to his strengths.
While the defense missed Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi, they recorded four sacks on Ryan Fitzpatrick and increased the pressure as the game progressed. It’s no longer a secret the force Joe Schobert has become; two more interceptions and four other passes broken up have cemented his Pro Bowl season. The linebacker isn’t the only defender flexing on opposing offenses, however. Overlooked by his more famous line mates, Sheldon Richardson has taken over games from the center of the defensive line.
Richardson’s dominant play couldn’t have come at a better time. With two new pass rushers in Chad Thomas and Chris Smith starting on the ends, Richardson is drawing attention from the edges, giving the ends chances to make plays in one-on-one battles against opposing tackles. His two sacks on Sunday set the tone for a defense with questions concerning how much pressure they’ll be able to generate on opposing QBs.
Nick Chubb leads the league in carries and trails Christian McCaffrey by only six yards in the chase for the rushing title. He’s been electric the entire year, a steady force during a wobbly season. Chubb is the team MVP, and for the Browns to run the table and force their way into the AFC playoffs he will need to continue to carry the water. His blend of speed, power, vision, and patience are unmatched in the league. His heart and attitude are an ideal fit with the city of Cleveland.
But can we stop the fist pounding when a play that doesn’t involve him fails? Chubb is on pace for 323 carries, which would be the most in the league since Adrian Peterson had 327 in 2015. He’s getting enough touches. Like it or not, winning NFL games now requires establishing a passing game to get a lead, then running the ball to bleed clock. The days of backs with 400 carries are over. To win in the NFL, to be a perennial playoff team and Super Bowl contender, offenses must throw the ball. The fate of this team ultimately relies upon Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham. Chubb is a force, the ultimate luxury for an offense. If he remains the best offensive player, however, the franchise will continue to fall short of their goals.
For the second time in three weeks, a date with the Steelers. As if enough wasn’t already on the line, the lingering effects of the Thursday night brawl will hang over Heinz Field on Sunday. Again, the Browns will need to prove they’ve matured over the course of the season. The crowd will be loud and angry. On defense they cannot commit dumb penalties. The Steelers offense is poor, starting third-string quarterback Devlin Hodges and likely without running back James Conner. Pittsburgh’s only score in Cleveland resulted when the defense racked up 58 yards of penalties on the drive. The Steeler offense only managed 16 points against Cincinnati, the worst defense yardage wise in the league. If the Browns don’t give them free yards, Pittsburgh won’t be able to score.
The playoffs are on the line Sunday. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Browns’ playoff chances are 29%, the Steelers’ 27%. A win Sunday boosts the odds to 50%, a loss drops them to 10%. The Steelers are injury riddled and have lost momentum built during a four game win streak after a loss to Baltimore. The adversity faced has made the Browns a tighter, tougher, bunch. Cleveland will need that Sunday. Their last win in Heinz Field was 2003. They haven’t swept the Steelers since 1988.
Thirty-one years. Unbelievable.
The Whip Around
1. The Cowboys lose when playing winning squads. Now 0-4 on the year when facing teams above .500, the kicking game was the culprit in New England. A missed field goal in the 1st quarter by Brett Maher wasted a tone setting drive, and a blocked punt set up the only touchdown of the day for the Patriots. On weather days like Sunday in New England, special teams are critical. Dallas showed themselves once again.
2. The reasons for dismissing San Francisco as a Super Bowl contender are drying up. While New England’s defense is better numbers wise, San Fran’s defensive line engulfs offenses. Their latest victim, Aaron Rodgers, hasn’t looked that inept since entering the league. Though Jimmy Garoppolo is still a question mark in tight games, the 49er defense seems determined to remove him from the equation. Home field advantage will be key. If they can get teams to the Bay Area, instead of having to go to Lambeau or New Orleans, the Niners have a real chance to be playing in February.
3. Week after week, Russell Wilson throws the most beautiful passes.
4. He’s unlike anything the NFL has ever seen, and I’ve given up on doubting Lamar Jackson. The new front runner for MVP, Jackson has proved he’s the most dangerous weapon in the league. Overwhelmed by his speed, defenses have no answer for his playmaking. The Ravens offense is on pace for the fewest punts ever during a 16 game season and haven’t punted on a Lamar Jackson-led drive since Week 9. Jackson finds different ways to torch defenses. He throws from unorthodox arm angles. Terrified of his running ability, rushers hesitate when pressuring him. According to nextgenstats.com, he’s faced the lowest pressure rate in the league at 21.1%. When teams blitz, he’s burned them, throwing a touchdown on 13.8% of attempts against the blitz. No other QB is higher than 11%. Lamar Jackson changes the way teams play defense then takes advantage when they’re out of their comfort zone. He’s unguardable.
5. After weeks and weeks of not overturning any pass interference calls via replay, the NFL flipped two on Sunday. Why? An overturn in the Browns game was iffy, but occurred with Cleveland already up 21-0. Another in the Panthers-Saints game could have affected the outcome. On third down and Carolina at the five yard line with 2:30 left in the game, the replay officials gave the Panthers a new set of downs. The NFL is responding to outside noise, allowing criticism to seep into the replay center’s interpretation of the rule book. If the league can’t decide how to officiate the game, they’ll continue losing fans’ interest.
6. Michael Thomas has 104 catches on the year and is on pace to break the Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 grabs in a season. We overlook Thomas when discussing the best receivers in the game. He isn’t flashy, just consistent. A precise route runner with sure hands, Drew Brees can trust Thomas will be where he’s supposed to be and that he’ll catch the football. He was Teddy Bridgewater’s safety valve during Brees’ injury, a huge reason Bridgewater didn’t turn the ball over and the Saints kept winning. The most interesting story in the league during the playoffs will be the Saints. Can they overcome the devastating losses they’ve endured the past two postseasons? If they win a Super Bowl, Thomas, not Brees, may end up being the reason.
8. Oakland has slithered their way into playoff contention, though they got throttled by the Jets on Sunday. The 34-3 loss damaged the Raiders chances, and a matchup this week in Kansas City will likely derail them further. The AFC wild card contenders- Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Oakland, Indianapolis, and Tennessee- are a gangly, uneven troupe. Who gets hot and earns a playoff berth?
9. The NFC picture is clearer. New Orleans is a lock; they lead their division by 3 games. Green Bay and Minnesota are both 8-3. One will win the division, the other a wild card. Same with San Francisco and Seattle out West. Either Dallas or Philadelphia has to win the sorry East. While most expect a Baltimore-New England AFC title game (don’t sleep on K.C.), this side of the bracket should scintillate. The Niners look unstoppable at the moment, but start the weakest quarterback. Brees, Rodgers, and Wilson have been through the battles. Who the hell knows about Minnesota. The Super Bowl representative from the NFC will earn the trip.
10. A San Francisco-Baltimore match-up this week is an NFL executive’s dream. The only problem? With a myriad of high profile games taking place on Thanksgiving weekend, this one is a Sunday afternoon, 1 o’clock tilt. The best defensive front in the league against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore running game will provide an attractive battle in the trenches. Baltimore should still score. Has anyone looked capable of slowing them down? This is a huge test for Jimmy Garoppolo. He must put up 20 to give San Fran a chance.
Happy Thanksgiving to all and thank you for supporting this little project I’ve undertaken. Enjoy your friends and family this weekend and all weekends. A home filled with laughter, a hug from a loved one; the little things provide the most meaning. Celebrate the mundane and embrace the crazy. And have that second piece of pie. You’ve earned it.